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Training Supervisors as Coaches

Written by Ed Nowicki

The head coach of any professional sports team is not even as skilled as the worst player on that team. So, can an effective law enforcement supervisor be not as skilled in law enforcement as any of the officers who are being supervised by that supervisor? The answer is clearly, “yes.”

Why are many officers more highly motivated to participate in sports than they are in their law enforcement duties? There are many reasons why sports are preferred over work. The goals are more clearly defined: simply winning the game by getting the highest score. The rules of the game don’t change. Performance is clearly measured. Everyone knows the score, and feedback immediate, personal, and accurate.

Law enforcement is not the same as professional sports, but there are certain similarities between the role of a coach on an athletic team and the role a law enforcement supervisor. The supervisor, just like an athletic coach, needs to do whatever possible to bring out the best in the people on his team. There is one key difference: losing a game in sports event is just a loss, while a loss in law enforcement may impact personal safety or even cost the life of someone.

When officers in an agency are effectively coached, the officers are able to achieve their individual goals and those that benefit an agency, a unit within the agency, a shift or even a team. Effective supervisors are coaches who help direct, support, and motivate officers these goals. Supervisors who coach can provide necessary training, when needed, and individual recognition, when earned. While coaching, the supervisor clarifies expectations and does whatever is possible in order to assist officers to do their individual and collective best.

People mistakenly equate counseling skills to coaching skills. Counseling and coaching are not synonymous. Counseling focuses on correcting problems by having officers change unacceptable behaviors or attitudes. Coaching focuses on assisting officers in having them develop improved talents and skills. Counseling deals primarily with the negatives by addressing problems and possible solutions. Coaching assists officers in the positive aspects of achieving their potential through personal motivation.

It may be best to leave the counseling to a department psychologist because counseling duties require an approach that is markedly different from coaching. Most supervisors can develop into good coaches, but not necessarily into good counselors. Counseling requires a greater one-on-one time commitment. Coaching can be one on one in addition to group coaching sessions. In fact, group coaching adds to a general esprit de corps.

The traditional role of a supervisor was, and all too often is, closer to having the duties of a baby-sitter instead of a coach. Sergeant Betsy Smith of the Naperville, IL Police said, “Many supervisors, especially the new ones, think their job is to discipline. They tell people what to do and how to do it, and to catch them screwing up.” This certainly seems like the role of a baby-sitter!

“The best supervisors are indeed coaches,” said Lieutenant Pete Ebel of the Lake Worth, FL Police. “A coach teaches, mentors, and gives something of himself to those who serve under him. A good coach can change your life, your career.”

How are coaches developed? Is there a coaching school? Chris Lawrence, project partner with the Canadian Police Research Centre of Ontario, said, “Supervisors should be coached on how to provide leadership. Leaders create an environment that provides the opportunity for followers to reach their maximum potential. Get people to do it well because they want to, not because they have to. When you become a really effective leader, your staff will say, “Look what we’ve done.”

Coaching skills can be applied across the agency, at all levels, whenever goals are established and people need help to achieve them. So, are there specialized coaching programs available for law enforcement? One comprehensive training program example is “The Managing Police Performance (Coaching Skills) Program” from Canada’s Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

According to university literature, this training is an intensive three-day workshop in coaching theory and practice. Following the training, coaches wishing to be certified must complete a series of tasks and submit reports during a period of practical coaching in their agency. Upon completion of the specified requirements, individuals can become a “Certified Police Coach,” which can also be used as partial credit toward a Certificate in Police Leadership from the Dalhousie University College of Continuing Education.

There needs to be thoughtful consideration when selecting the topics in a coach-training program. Dr. Terry Wollert, a senior researcher in training innovation for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, GA, said, “The training should introduce coaches to attributes of how expectation can influence performance. This segment should include the Pygmalion effect or self-fulfilling prophecy. A component of the training should include elements of effective communication styles.

Essential topics include adult learning principles and feedback techniques. It is important to introduce the new coaches to common mistakes made during coaching sessions and how to avoid them. Typical mistakes include: failing to provide feedback, inattention, cutting the employee off, and losing objectivity. The training should include hands-on practice in observing performance, identifying employee actions, identifying areas of strength, identifying areas for improvement, and identifying alternate solutions.”

Lieutenant Don Kester of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Tucson, AZ, said, “If supervisors were coaches at times, it would improve the agency as a whole and the individual in many ways. Our job as leaders and supervisors is to make people succeed. That is the bottom line. If we make them succeed, the agency succeeds, society reaps the benefit, and we have happier and more productive employees.

“Anything less is a disservice to our troops. If we don’t put every effort forth to make them succeed, why are we supervisors or commanders? For instance, a supervisor trained as a coach could deal with many issues and resolve these issues before they get to the level of discipline.”

Establishing an agency-coaching program that trains supervisors as coaches seems obvious. Coaching addresses both the needs of the agency and the motivational needs of the officers. The agency benefits by having officers perform their duties at a high level. As individuals, officers develop a greater sense of self-confidence and competence.

Any first-line supervisory program should contain a block of instruction on “coaching subordinates.” The established agency coaching program needs a firm commitment by the top executive of the law enforcement agency. Without a firm commitment from the top, the coaching program will be little more than “lip service” and can easily turn counterproductive.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” He recognized that if people, including officers, are to realize their potential, they must be trained, guided, pushed, molded and inspired by someone. In other words, they need a coach!

Ed Nowicki, a nationally recognized use-of-force expert, is a part-time officer for the Twin Lakes (WI) Police Department. He presents use-of-force instructor certification courses across the nation and is the executive director of ILEETA. He can be reached at ed@ileeta.org.

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2008

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